Florida Governor Strips Disney of Special District Control

Walt Disney World in Orlando Florida

Photo: Joe Raedle (Getty Images)

Florida governor Ron DeSantis has retaliated against Disney for speaking out against the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill by revoking the Disney Company’s control over the Reedy Creek District, the area where Disney Parks has long encompassed its own city.

The goal to implement bureaucratic interference was passed, as reported by Deadline, without the state taking on the 1 billion in municipal debt that comes along with it. The move has dissolved the company’s 55-year hold on the district, with DeSantis appointing new members to the Reedy Creek Improvement District board.

Why did DeSantis choose now to act against the Disney Company?

In the past, the Reedy Creek Improvement District has fallen under some scrutiny. It revolves around the 27 miles of land where Disney was able to bypass the state for approvals on expansions, acting as an independent entity but taking on the courtesy of paying the high property taxes in Orange and Osceola counties. The special district was originally set in motion to aid Walt Disney’s plans for EPCOT as he described in 1966, in which he wanted to build his Florida Project as an example of a sustainable city of the future.

DeSantis chose to punish Disney for standing against his “Don’t Say Gay” bill, also known as Florida’s HB 1557. Last March, the Walt Disney Company released a statement against the homophobic and transgressive law that read, “Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that. We are dedicated to standing up for the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ members of the Disney family, as well as the LGBTQ+ community in Florida and across the country.”

Following the statement, the governor immediately sought to tamper with Disney’s power in the state, seen as a move to bolster his reputation in the Republican party ahead of the next presidential election. As Deadline reported, during the signing that revokes Disney control of Reedy Creek—which was held on Disney property—DeSantis said, “When you lose your way, you got to have people who are going to tell you the truth.”

Who is on DeSantis’ Reedy Creek Board?

For a politician who claimed that Disney needed to have its corporate control reduced, DeSantis’ choices for who’s now in charge of infrastructure, drainage, utilities, and public services at the resorts display some personal bias. The five members are: Martin Garcia (a Tampa lawyer whose Pinehill Capital contributed $50,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC); Bridget Ziegler (a co-founder of Moms for Liberty, a conservative group behind massive book bans, and wife to Christian Ziegler, state Chair of the Republican Party of Florida); lawyer Mike Sasso; lawyer Brian Aungst Jr.; and businessman Ron Peri, who runs the Gathering USA ministry. They will all require confirmation by the Florida Senate.

“I think that all of these board members very much would like to see the type of entertainment that all families can appreciate,” DeSantis said in regards to his choices. The board was renamed the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, with new legislation implementing provisions for the district’s debt obligations to still be paid by the Disney Company.

What is Disney’s stance?

Disney’s internal conflicts about the “Don’t Say Gay” bill are not news, but DeSantis revealed in an excerpt from his upcoming book that former Disney CEO Bob Chapek called him about the controversy. “He did not want Disney to get involved, but he was getting a lot of pressure to weigh in against the bill,” DeSantis wrote about their personal conversation, saying he was told by Chapek, “We get pressured all the time. But this time is different. I haven’t seen anything like this before.”

With Bob Iger back in charge of Disney, could Disney face some repercussions for the company’s inclusion initiatives? As Deadline notes, Democratic Rep. Rita Harris expressed concern about this possibility, using the recent decision to transform Splash Mountain to Tiana’s Bayou Adventure as an example. “What if the governor didn’t like that?” she said. “Would the board be able to push the company into changing their business model?” Theoretically at least, the board will stick to handling municipal contracts and approvals on the 25,000 acres of land and not have any sort of influence on creative.

Disney’s stance appears to be holding steady on its initiatives. Walt Disney World Resort President Jeff Vahle said in the company’s official statement, “We are focused on the future and are ready to work within this new framework, and we will continue to innovate, inspire and bring joy to the millions of guests who come to Florida to visit Walt Disney World each year.”

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